OLYMPIA — Republicans proved Monday they had the votes to take control of the state Senate, opening a session that must deal with a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall, a court mandate for more education funding, and Democrats’ resentment over a loss of power.
Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom, of Medina, and Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, crossed party lines to give the GOP a 25-24 majority. They call themselves the Majority Coalition Caucus. Tom is the new majority leader. And on a 38-10 vote, Sheldon was elected president pro tempore, a position that presides over the Senate when the lieutenant governor is unavailable.
Bucking some criticism, state Sen. Brian Hatfield accepted the Republicans’ offer to chair his old committee, taking charge of Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development. But Hatfield said that his decision doesn’t mean he’s officially part of the majority coalition.
Two other Democrats have also accepted to chair committees. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, will co-chair the Senate Transportation Committee along with GOP Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, will chair the Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee.
Republicans have offered to let Democrats chair six committees and co-chair three others, but so far there haven’t been any other takers. Republicans will lead six committee, including the budget, education and health-care panels and the rules committee, which controls the flow of legislation on the floor, which is stacked more in favor of the coalition control.
Hatfield had been among Democratic legislators urging for co-chairs on every single committee, noting that he served in the house for three years during a time of co-chairs when control was tied 49-49 evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
“Senator Tom mentioned we need to work together and I agree and what better way than to work together than to have co-chairs so you’re forced to work together,” Hatfield said on the floor. “A lot of people said that tie was a recipe for gridlock. I disagree. As a moderate, the tie worked just fine for me. … This is how we stabilize an unstable majority. What we’re offering here is a recipe for focus, for stability and for getting results for the people of the state of Washington.”
The Democratic proposal was defeated on a 23-25 vote, quickly followed by acceptance of the coalition’s proposal for rules changes allowing their majority coalition on a 25-23 vote.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said he was disappointed in the approach of the coalition.
“Whether it’s bipartisan or not depends on where we go from here and so far we’re not off to a very good start,” Hargrove said on the floor. ” … A bipartisan fashion is not one or two going over to the other side. I don’t think that’s really bipartisan.”
Hargrove, who will serve as ranking minority member of the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee, noted that he has a reputation for working with both sides of the aisle.
“In fact, I am so bipartisan that sometimes my party wonders if I’m in my party or the other party,” Hargrove said, looking at coalition members on the floor of the Senate. “I stand ready as I think everybody does here to work together in a bi-partisan fashion because that’s what it’s going to take to get out of here because there’s somebody else in control on the other side and the governor’s office so you’re going to need a little help.”
It’s not clear if the new arrangement will lead to bipartisan solutions or partisan gridlock. Although the Senate is in GOP control for the first time in eight years, the House and governor’s office remain in Democratic hands.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, called what the GOP was offering “BINO, bipartisanship in name only.” Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, called it a “kind of show trial.”
Sen. Linda Parlette, R-Wenatchee, noted that there is an “unprecedented level of cooperation” with the coalition offering so many committee chairs to Democrats.
Tom said the GOP coalition was truly bipartisan. “There are five of us Democrats who are intimately involved in this process now,” he said.
However, Eide, Hatfield and Hobbs don’t plan to caucus with the Republicans.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who had been gearing up to become Senate Majority Leader before the coalition take over, said that he’s tired of hearing that legislative power was being seized from “Seattle control.”
“For some reason if you happen to live in Seattle that’s a problem,” Murray said. “And I just want to point out I don’t think that’s healthy. I don’t think we should stereotype ourselves that way. I was born in Grays Harbor County. I know a lot about Grays Harbor County. I just spent a few days with Sen. Hargrove talking about economic development projects in Grays Harbor County. I have two uncles including my namesake who were killed in logging accidents. My father, my grandfather and my brother all were injured in logging accidents. This is one state and it’s unfortunate we’ve decided to choose a single city and act like it’s not part of that state.”
Both sides sniped at each other through the day, starting with Democrats taking offense to the opening prayer.
As part of his invocation, Jon Sanne of Olympia’s Calvary Chapel expressed that marriage be strengthened “as You ordained it for our good and Your glory.”
Many saw that as a swipe at same-sex marriage, although Republican leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, Adams County — who invited Sanne — said it was not meant as a political statement.
Murray released a statement saying it was “regrettable that we begin the 2013 session on a divisive note.”
Murray led the successful fight to legalize same-sex marriage last year.
Aside from the prayer dispute, the day went pretty much as expected.
Democrats had their talking points in hand before they went on the floor. They knew their proposals would be defeated and the Republican’s would be approved.
They’d even given up their offices already, handing over the more spacious digs traditionally held by the majority party to the GOP.
For some of the new members of the senate, when you have the votes you talk and when you don’t have the votes you vote,” Hargrove said, before going into his floor speech to the laughter of his colleagues. “So I just want to make that clear.”
Tom was ensconced in the Senate majority leader’s office, which Murray had thought he would occupy this session.
Murray actually walked into the wrong office with a reporter Monday because he wasn’t used to the new location.
Outgoing Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, who lost to Gov.-elect Jay Inslee in the gubernatorial election, dropped by to offer parting words to the Republican Senate caucus — and accidentally went to the Democratic caucus before realizing his mistake. He had not gotten word they’d moved.